Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Mark Denny

Mark Denny is a theoretical physicist who worked in academia and industry. He is the author of a number of books for scholars, students, and general readers, including Gliding for Gold: The Physics of Winter Sports; Their Arrows Will Darken the Sun: The Evolution and Science of Ballistics; Super Structures: The Science of Bridges, Buildings, Dams, and Other Feats of Engineering; and the recently released The Science of Navigation: From Dead Reckoning to GPS.

Not so long ago I asked him what he was reading.  His reply:
I’m an avid reader, usually with three or four books on the go at any one time—a book by my bed, a book in the living room, another in my truck and one in my car. (No, I don’t read while driving.) So it is particularly easy or hard for me to describe what I’m reading, depending on who is asking. The editor of this blog wants to know about all my current reading, so he is making it hard, but I’m happy to oblige.

First thing in the morning these days (after making my wife a pot of tea) I am re-reading Little Dorrit. I’m a trained scientist—no sophisticate in literary appreciation—and I just can’t get past nineteenth century English fiction (Sherlock Holmes is a perennial favorite, though I have daringly ventured into the early twentieth century with G.K. Chesterton’s amazing Father Brown stories). Dickens is just jaw-droppingly good, especially for history buffs who appreciate the contemporary social references. His characters are so strange and so real (though Little Dorrit herself is irritatingly idealized) and he uses humor as a sharp sword.

Mostly I read non-fiction, and in my truck am just finishing a bizarre account of the French philosopher René Descartes. It is Descartes’ Bones by Russell Shorto. Part philosophy and part historical detective story, it tells us about the very weird peregrinations of Descartes’ skeleton since his demise. The story is weaved into the author’s interpretation of his subject’s impact on all aspects of modern thought. You make think that some humor wouldn’t go amiss for such heavy and morbid fare, and fortunately Shorto agrees.

Permit me to pass quickly over my car book: The Rise of American Democracy by Sean Wilentz. A detailed and thorough academic account of your strange and interesting country (I write from across the border in Canada) it is tedious in large doses, so at 1,000 pages it will take me some time to digest Prof. Wilentz’ tome, though by the end I hope to understand a lot more of the peculiar workings of the United States government.

The living room book is also history, though altogether grimmer: The Pacific War, edited by Daniel Marston. Every bit as brutal as the war between Stalin and Hitler, the war against Japan resulted in an equally decisive victory and defeat. I’ve just started this book; it looks to be interesting because it gives accounts from a Japanese view as well as American, and includes the almost-forgotten war in Burma between British forces and the Japanese.
Read about Mark Denny's The Science of Navigation at the Johns Hopkins University Press website.

The Page 99 Test: The Science of Navigation.

--Marshal Zeringue

Monday, July 30, 2012

Jeff Crook

Jeff Crook is a technical writer/editor for the U.S. Postal Service and the author of several fantasy books in the Dragonlance series including Conundrum and The Thieves' Guild.

The newly released The Sleeping and the Dead is his first mystery.

Earlier this month I asked the author what he was reading.  His reply:
Great Expectations by Charles Dickens. I make it a habit to read, every year, a few of the classics. I had originally set my heart on A Tale of Two Cities, as I had several copies in my library and I hadn't read it since high school. But when I went to find one of them, I could find none of them. Apparently I had sold each copy in a garage sale, believing I still had at least one on the shelf. I set out for the used bookstore and again failed to find a single copy. So I picked up Great Expectations, as I had never read that story, except once in junior high when I scanned the Cliff's Notes in order to complete a book report that was due the next day.

Charles Dickens is the original purveyor of the bitingly wry literary lightning bolt. This same wit, or tone of voice, is an identifying feature of the detective noir narrator.

I'm also reading Karate-do: My Way of Life by Gichin Funokoshi. It is the reading requirement for 8th Kyu in Okinawan kobudo. And because detective novel authors are supposed to be tough guys who can kick butt. With a big stick. Or nunchaku.
Visit Jeff Crook's website.

The Page 69 Test: The Sleeping and the Dead.

--Marshal Zeringue

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Lanier Scott Isom

Lanier Scott Isom is an author and journalist living in Birmingham, Alabama, with her husband and their two children, four rescued dogs, one bearded dragon, several Fire-bellied toads, and too many tadpoles to count. She is currently working on her second novel, and continues to write for a variety of publications. Her latest book is Lilly Ledbetter’s memoir, Grace and Grit: How I Won My Fight for Fairness at Goodyear and Beyond.

Recently I asked the author what she was reading.  Her reply:
I typically have several books on my nightstand and a stack of magazines I subscribe to---Tin House, The Paris Review, The New Yorker, Poets and Writers, Creative Nonfiction and Writer’s Digest. If I’m lucky, I’m able to read snippets from each book before bed at night and find a moment during the day to catch up on the latest issue of one of my magazines. If I’m lucky, that is. Gone are the days I enjoyed chunks of time to gobbled up books. Now, I read late at night, absorbing what I read in bits and pieces. Most of the time, my reading choices are connected to particular experiences or person in my life, as I’ve noted for each choice.

Since I’ve spent the past couple of years writing Lilly Ledbetter’s memoir, Grace and Grit, I’m always reading a memoir. Currently, I’m reading Cheryl Strayed’s Wild. I read memoirs for the same reason we all do: to discover the emotional truths someone else has wrested from their life’s journey. I also read memoirs to see how writers craft a narrative from the messy facts of life, how they shape their experiences into an object of beauty, and how they crystallize a moment into its essence much like a poet does. At the beginning of her memoir, Strand reflects, “I’d set out on the trail so I could reflect upon my life, to think about everything that had broken me and make myself whole again.” What she finds is she’s consumed with her most immediate cause of physical suffering. But as she navigates the hardships she encounters in the wilderness, she does indeed restore her soul, learning that she has no choice but to face and navigate time after time on the trail, as in life, another seemingly impossible obstacle. Strayed writes about her emotional and physical adversities with humor, wisdom and honesty.

Architecture of a Novel by Janet Vandenburgh
(Recommended by writer who has published nine novels in the past ten years.)

I’m neurotic and obsessive and want to control, plan and orchestrate the ending of a novel even before I’ve put one word on the blank page. This book is great for me because it explores the organic nature of writing while at the same time discussing the immutable laws about a novel’s structure. Vandenburgh writes about learning the truths of a novel from the inside out. She also writes, “ A book, as I’m writing it, gives me someplace I always need to be and it feels to me like home.” My sentiments exactly. She notes how stubbornness and the daily discipline of writing are far more important than talent when it comes to finishing a novel. She, like so many writers, completes a work while folding laundry, shopping, driving, stirring the soup, carrying on with her day to day life. She dreams the dream of her narrative, running it through her mind while tending to the mundane. In the last half of her book, “The ABCs of Narrative Structure,” she explores the technical aspects of writing, explaining the most basic of narrative truths with fresh language and insight, reminding us what we already know, have forgotten or have yet to discover.

The parenting book I read and reread is Everyday Blessings: The Inner Work of Mindful Parenting. A dear friend who was the counselor at a suburban high school where I taught English recommended this book to me when I asked her about good parenting books. This choice was perfect for me. I had read Jon Kabat-Zinn’s Full Catastrophic Living, so I knew a bit about his Buddhist take how to heal ourselves. Now, I’m the antithesis of a mindful parent. I screech and scream and react and then overreact. That’s why I reread this book. Parenting for Kabat-Zinn is a spiritual practice. He shows the reader how to cultivate an awareness to help her stay calm, grounded and clear in the stressful daily lives of families. He illustrates his advice with stories and his own experience. In his eyes, parenting is really an eighteen year meditation retreat where parents are challenged to become aware of our authentic selves, through breath and quiet contemplation, in order to grow so we give our greatest gift to our children: our presence in the deepest, most spiritual sense of the word.

Thrive: The Vegan Guide to Optimal Performance in Sports and Life by Brendan Brazier
(Given to me by my husband.)

I’ve always been focused on nutrition and now more so than ever as I careen into middle age, face my mortality and understand how our food choices, the treatment of animals we eat, and our method of food production affect our planet’s future and our children’s health. My husband has recently become a vegan after giving up meat almost fifteen years ago. I no longer eat meat either or consume much dairy. Now I do have milk in my coffee and the occasional milkshake. Moderation is the key for me. But if you don’t eat meat or dairy and most recently wheat (after reading Wheat Belly by William Davis), coming up with healthy meals means you need to research extensively to learn about what to eat. What Thrive offers that is most helpful for me right now is an array of menu choices and recipes. The meal preparation is a bit time consuming, but it’s worth it. This book is about how to develop a long-term eating plan with a plant-based diet. It also has information about what and how to eat to sustain a good exercise routine.

The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You Are Supposed To Be and Embrace Who You Are by Brene Brown (Recommended by my friend as we drove to a conference where we spoke on a panel to college girls about leadership.)

I have read so many self help books delving into emotional and psychological issues by folks like Ingrid Bacci, John Bradshaw and Harriet Lerner. This one, however, is already a favorite. I’ve arrived at the point in my life where Brown’s research and stories about how shame erodes our quality of life and love ring true. She explains that being worthy in the present moment is the basis of our emotional health. And she gives a road map to clearing the shame---a simple yet courageous call to speak the truth, not wallow in the swampland of shame, but be authentic by speaking from the heart to combat the shame dumpers in your life and hold people accountable with a compassionate but firm voice.

Poetry: American Primitive by Mary Oliver
(Given to me many years ago by a good friend who is now a marriage counselor living in San Francisco)

I read poetry to remind myself how powerful and beautiful language is. How amazing it is that a poem contains worlds! Reading poetry I experience so much with so few words. I read Oliver’s poems to remind me how to use a language of economy in my own writing.
Visit Lanier Scott Isom's website and blog.

--Marshal Zeringue

Friday, July 27, 2012

D.B. Jackson

D.B. Jackson is also David B. Coe, the award-winning author of a dozen fantasy novels. His first book as D.B. Jackson, Thieftaker, volume I of the Thieftaker Chronicles, was released by Tor Books on July 3d. Jackson lives on the Cumberland Plateau with his wife and two teenaged daughters. They're all smarter and prettier than he is, but they keep him around because he makes a mean vegetarian fajita. When he's not writing he likes to hike, play guitar, and stalk the perfect image with his camera.

About a month ago I asked him what he was reading.  His reply:
What I am reading now, and what I have been reading recently are closely related. I have just started reading Shades of Milk and Honey, by award-winning fantasist Mary Robinette Kowal. I'm only a short ways into the book, but already I'm enjoying it thoroughly.

I should pause here in the dual interests of full disclosure and larger context, to say that Mary and I are friends, and so I am predisposed to like her work. But more than that, I came to Shades of Milk and Honey with a feeling of some inadequacy. You see, Mary's work is written as a sort of fantasy homage to the work of Jane Austen, and through some inexcusable gap in my literary education, I had never read any Austen at all.

Mary assures me (and I can vouch for this) that no prior knowledge of Austen is necessary to enjoy her book, but I thought that I would more fully appreciate the experience if I did a little homework first. So in the last month or so, I have read both Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice, and have enjoyed them thoroughly. It will come as no surprise to most of you that Austen's work has an incredibly effective dry wit that is especially effective in her dialogue. She manages to create female characters who live and act within the strictly circumscribed confines of 18th century gender roles, and yet who also manage to be spirited, strong, and admirable. As I say, I loved both books.

The funny thing about this is that I recently mentioned to Mary that I had read the two Austen books before opening hers. I even made some joke about how I had never before done homework before reading a friend's novel.

The joke's on me.

It turns out that Mary's lead character is based not on one of the Dashwood sisters from Sense and Sensibility, nor on Elizabeth Bennet from Pride and Prejudice, but rather on Anne Elliot, the lead character in Austen's final book Persuasion. Which, of course, I have never read.

I guess I know what I'm reading next.
Visit D. B. Jackson's website and blog.

The Page 69 Test: Thieftaker.

--Marshal Zeringue

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Scott Lasser

Scott Lasser is the author of four novels: Battle Creek, All I Could Get, The Year That Follows, and Say Nice Things About Detroit. He recently completed a screenplay adaptation of Say Nice Things About Detroit for Steve Carell’s Carousel Productions. His non-fiction has appeared in magazines ranging from Dealmaker (for which he wrote a regular book column) to The New Yorker. Lasser has worked for a variety of now-bankrupt companies, including the National Steel Corporation, General Motors, and Lehman Brothers.

A few weeks ago I asked the author what he was reading.  His reply:
I find that an unexpected benefit of attending a summer writers’ conference is that I explore certain books because I might actually meet the author. It was through this process that I came to Benjamin Percy’s first novel, The Wilding. At its heart it’s the story of a grandfather, father, and son who go on a camping trip in eastern Oregon. But it’s much more than that: the pristine land through which they’re traveling is about to be developed and irrevocably changed, just as are the relationships between the three generations of men. While Percy expertly explores the dynamics of blood, this is (thankfully) no quiet domestic drama. The story plays out against a vanishing landscape that is both beautiful and likely to induce violence. The Wilding deftly explores the meaning of manhood in the twenty-first century, but mostly it is a riveting tale of family, loss, and risk, vividly told. A stunning debut.
Visit Scott Lasser's website and blog.

The Page 69 Test: Say Nice Things About Detroit.

--Marshal Zeringue

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Joy Castro

Joy Castro is the author of the thriller Hell or High Water, which received a starred review from Booklist for its “exquisite New Orleans background, intriguing newsroom politics and atmosphere, a flawed but plucky heroine, and skillfully paced suspense.” Also the author of two memoirs, The Truth Book and Island of Bones, she lives with her husband in Lincoln, Nebraska and teaches creative writing, literature, and Latino studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

Recently I asked Castro what she was reading.  Her reply:
Teaching in Seville recently, I came across an old Penguin paperback of John le Carré’s academic mystery A Murder of Quality on the bookshelves of my apartment there. Though it fell apart in my hands, I read it in two nights, delighted by the genuine suspense and le Carré’s witty, knowing takedowns of academic presumptions. When we got back to the States, I had to have more, and I’ve been reading his classic 1963 espionage thriller The Spy Who Came In From the Cold. I like the calm, terse quality of the writing and the deft way le Carré handles point of view, so that the reader isn’t entirely sure of what’s going on, when people are pretending, or who knows what. He’s got suspense down to a fine and elegant art.
Visit Joy Castro’s website and Twitter perch.

The Page 69 Test: Hell or High Water.

--Marshal Zeringue

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Cathi Hanauer

Cathi Hanauer is the author of the novels My Sister’s Bones and Sweet Ruin and the editor of the New York Times bestselling essay anthology The Bitch in the House: 26 Women Tell the Truth About Sex, Solitude, Work, Motherhood, and Marriage. Her articles, essays, and/or criticism have appeared in the New York Times, Elle, O, The Oprah Magazine, Glamour, Self, Parenting, Whole Living, and other magazines. She lives with her family in western Massachusetts.

Her new novel is Gone.

Late last month I asked the author what she was reading. Her reply:
I'm a short way into Gillian Flynn's Gone Girl, because it sounded intriguing and because how can you not read a book with almost the same name as your own that came out at the same time and is jumping off the shelves? It's gripping so far, very well written--a young love/hate story that's both gritty and funny, and I look forward to having time to read more.

Almost done with 50 Shades of Grey, because how can you not read a book that so many different people, from erudite to mainstream, are all reading and talking about? It's just about what I expected: quite badly written but very sexy, especially the first 2/3, though I'm just about ready to be done with it (and no, I won't be buying the boxed set--I think I get it by now).

Recently finished rereading The House of Mirth, Edith Wharton's masterpiece about the tortured and charming Lily Bart--because you can't reread that brilliant book enough, with Wharton's impeccable writing.

Also just finished Amanda Bennett's The Cost of Hope, a new nonfiction book in which this former Pulitzer Prize-winning Wall Street Journal reporter does a nice job of combining a marriage memoir with a reported piece about her husband's bout with cancer and the chaos of the American health care system.

Kate Christensen's The Astral, which I recently reread when it came out in paperback, is--like all of Christensen's books--a gorgeous, smart, page-turning read about a man in Brooklyn who gets booted out by his wife when she thinks he's having an affair. Christensen is a razor-sharp writer, and the main character, Harry Quirk, is fantastic.

Finally, I have the good fortune to be going to Italy this summer, so I recently reread Death in Venice--such a sad, weird, memorable story--and will soon be rereading The Talented Mr. Ripley, which of course takes place in Venice. Didion's Blue Nights and Cheryl Strayed's Wild are also both on my summer reading list. Can't wait.
Visit Cathi Hanauer's website.

My Book, The Movie: Gone.

The Page 69 Test: Gone.

--Marshal Zeringue

Monday, July 23, 2012

Rebecca Cantrell

Rebecca Cantrell writes the Hannah Vogel mystery series set in Berlin in the 1930s, including A Trace of Smoke, A Night of Long Knives, A Game of Lies, and the newly released A City of Broken Glass.

Recently I asked her what she was reading. Her reply:
Right now I’m reading two books at the same time.

The first is a collection of essays about Berlin. It’s in German, and it’s called Berlin literarisch or Literary Berlin and is edited by Jürgen Engler.

It’s a literary romp through Berlin as seen through the eyes of the writers who have lived or visited here at some time during the last three hundred years. Some love it, some hate it, but all of them are drawn into the mysterious energy that is Berlin.

The second book is called Berlin: City of Stones and it’s a graphic novel by Jason Lutes. I stumbled across it in my local library and was delighted to find a carefully rendered view into 1920s Berlin as told through the life of an art student named Marthe Müller and a journalist named Kurt Severing.

I love hearing the voices and seeing the pen and ink drawings that give me new insights into the city that has fascinated me as a writer, the city that I now feel lucky to call home.
Learn more about the book and author at Rebecca Cantrell's website and blog.

Read "The Story Behind the Story: A City of Broken Glass" at The Rap Sheet.

The Page 69 Test: A Trace of Smoke.

My Book, The Movie: A Trace of Smoke.

The Page 69 Test: A Game of Lies.

My Book, The Movie: A Game of Lies.

--Marshal Zeringue

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Monica Wood

Monica Wood is a novelist whose first memoir is just out: When We Were the Kennedys: A Memoir from Mexico, Maine. In it, she tells the story of 1963, a year in which her beloved father, who worked in the woodyard of the local paper mill, suddenly died; the president was assassinated; and her small mill town braced itself for a prolonged labor strike.

Not so long ago I asked her what she was reading.  Her reply:
My local bookstore, Longfellow Books in Portland, Maine, is manned (and womaned) by bibliophiles who delight in foisting their literary passions upon me whenever I come in. Bill Lundgren recommended Pulphead, a book of essays by John Jeremiah Sullivan. “Recommended” is such a weak word for what I mean. Imagine a “recommendation” accompanied by a jar of killer bees with Bill’s fingers s-l-o-w-l-y twisting the cap. I speak metaphorically, of course; killer bees have not yet arrived in Maine, except in the form of John Jeremiah Sullivan’s buzzing prose. I felt stung—in a good way—by his fresh use of language, his goofy sensibilities, and his disarming lack of cynicism as he tackles a myriad of topics: Christian rock bands, his brother’s near-electrocution, an elderly literary icon with whom he moved in as a caretaker when he was 20. The essays, which originally appeared in places like GQ and the New York Times, are an unmitigated pleasure, filled with little surprises on every page. Recounting what he wore to a wedding, he tells us, “I have a black-and-white cat with a trick bladder, and she urinated on my bow tie, so I wore an actual black necktie with my tuxedo.” Or this, about a has-been reality-show star: “He had on a crisp, cool shirt and was sporting, in place of his old floppy bangs, a new sort-of mousse-Mohawk, just a little ridgelet of product-hardened hair emerging from his buzz cut.” This guy is a pleasure to read, and only in a place like Longfellow Books would I have come across him. I shudder to envision a world without bookstores.
Visit Monica Wood's website.

The Page 99 Test: When We Were the Kennedys.

--Marshal Zeringue

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Jack McCallum

Jack McCallum is the author of Seven Seconds or Less and was a longtime member of the staff of Sports Illustrated. He has edited the weekly SCORECARD section of the magazine, has written scripts for various SI Sportsman of the Year shows, and is currently a Special Contributor to the magazine and SI.com. He has won the Curt Gowdy Award from the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame and the National Women Sports Foundation Media Award and teaches college journalism.

McCallum's new book is Dream Team: How Michael, Magic, Larry, Charles, and the Greatest Team of All Time Conquered the World and Changed the Game of Basketball Forever.

Late last month I asked him what he was reading.  His reply:
One of the advantages of being a journalist/writer for five decades is that you have a lot of friends who write books. So you can read them and hope they’re good … but not too good. One of the too-good ones is Chris Ballard’s One Shot at Forever, a non-fiction tale of a ragtag Illinois high school baseball team that achieves great things. Sounds corny, right? Not in Ballard’s telling. It has echoes of Friday Night Lights by Buzz Bissinger, who supplied a Buzz-blurb for the back cover.

I generally alternate my reads between fiction and non-fiction, so I can appear both artistic and au courant. I just caught up to Tom Perotta’s The Leftovers, whose premise is wonderfully dark and outrageous while his prose is tightly controlled. How did he do that?

I wanted to read a Civil War book since everybody has to read a Civil War book. (Ken Burns insists on it.) So I’m reading April 1865, by Jay Winik. It carries the subtitle of The Month That Saved America, meaning that every word has to be directed toward proving the premise. I usually hate that setup, but in that particular month we had—to name but two minor events—the assassination of our greatest President and the surrender at Appomattox. So Winik, both splendid writer and splendid historian, is able to pull it off.

Finally, I’m going to the Olympics to write for the NBC website, and on the way over I plan to read Carry The One, a novel by Carol Anshaw. It’s by no means an “airplane book”—much tragedy ensues following a wedding—but my wife will be sitting beside me and reading the same book so we can argue about it. We do that once in a while.
Visit Jack McCallum's website and blog.

--Marshal Zeringue

Friday, July 20, 2012

Diana López

Diana López is the author of the adult novella, Sofia’s Saints and the middle grade novels, Confetti Girl Ask My Mood Ring How I Feel (to be released in 2013).

Her new book is the young adult novel, Choke.

A few weeks ago I asked the author what she was reading. Her reply:
I usually read several books at a time. Here’s a sample of what I’m currently enjoying.

In April, I attended the TLA Conference in Houston during Teen Day when book clubs from all over Texas take a field trip to the event. I asked the teens about their favorite books, and many of them mentioned Matched by Ally Condie. For a fan of sci-fi and YA, this is a must-read. It’s about Cassia Reyes who lives in a society where officials decide who you will marry and where you will work. That’s bad enough but the real horror, in my opinion, is that only one hundred poems have been approved. Imagine living in a world with only one hundred poems. A nightmare! So far, Cassia seems to accept her life. She is very obedient and when the officials make a mistake, she keeps their secret. But I have just read the scene where Cassia’s grandfather gives her a forbidden poem, so I have a feeling she’s going to change, maybe challenge the system. After all, that is the power of literature.

I’m also reading Phillis Wheatley: Biography of a Genius in Bondage by Vincent Carretta. It has a scholarly tone, so I read it in the morning when my mind is sharp. I love reading history books, both non-fiction and fiction, and this one does a good job of portraying Phillis Wheatley’s world and of providing a context with which to interpret her poems.
Finally, I like reading short stories. Right now, I’m enjoying Along These Highways by Rene Perez. It’s especially interesting because some of the stories take place in Corpus Christi, my hometown. Other recent favorites are Breathing, In Dust by Tim Z. Hernandez and Before the End, After the Beginning by Dagoberto Gilb.

I could go on and on about all the wonderful books out there. Luckily, there is no end to interesting stories. I can only sigh when I think about it ... so many books, so little time.
Visit Diana López's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Frank Partnoy

Frank Partnoy is the George E. Barrett Professor of Law and Finance and is the director of the Center on Corporate and Securities Law at the University of San Diego. He is one of the world's leading experts on the complexities of modern finance and financial market regulation. He is the author of F.I.A.S.C.O.: Blood in the Water on Wall Street; Infectious Greed: How Deceit and Risk Corrupted the Financial Markets; and The Match King: Ivar Kreuger, The Financial Genius Behind a Century of Wall Street Scandals.

His new book is Wait: The Art and Science of Delay.

Partnoy's reply to my recent query about what he's been reading:
I tend to have several books going at a time, not because I necessarily like having several interesting stories in my mind at once, but because all too often I have the attention span of a pigeon. I recently finished the first half of Stephen King’s 11/22/63, his time-travel alternate-reality novel about the assassination of JFK. I’m a big Stephen King fan, and I was really enjoying this one. But then I had a conversation with a friend I trust who has read most of King’s books and told me he was disappointed in the second half of the book, particularly the ending. So I stopped reading. I’ve been thinking about what to do. Should I just preserve my memory and enjoyment from the first half, or should I run the risk of reading the rest? Maybe my friend is wrong: not every time travel book devolves into a contradictory mess. Also, if I decide not to finish the book, should I find out whether JFK lives? Do I deserve to know? I’m not sure I’ve earned that privilege.

While I struggled with that quandary, I picked up Stacy Schiff’s Cleopatra: A Life. Wow. I knew some of Cleopatra’s story, but this re-telling is eye-opening. I’m definitely not a scholar of the period, but the book feels definitive. The history is detailed and compelling. It really does, as reviewers said, “sizzle with passion.” I’ve written one biography and have done some financial history, so I understand how hard it is to pull this off. It’s truly a pleasure to read a sentence or paragraph and know there’s no way you could have written it. No way; no chance. I especially respect the intricate portraits Schiff paints, as well as the scholarly references. It drives me crazy when historians don’t include citations, or make it clear when something might or might not be true. Schiff is meticulous, which makes me so much more confident that she’s gotten Cleopatra’s story right. I’ll definitely finish this one, even though I already know how it ends.

When I’m hunting for a new book topic, as I am now, I often will read several non-fiction books in an area I’m circling and then go back through them in detail, marking them up. (Although I like reading e-books, I always do this with paper copies – electronic annotating doesn’t work for me, at least not yet.) Lately, I’ve been interested in the nature of knowledge: what can we really say with certainty that we know? Has technology made knowledge more or less certain? Or are we more easily fooled or prone to believe something implausible? David Weinberger’s Too Big to Know addresses some of these ideas in the context of the Internet; he’s a real web guru. Kathryn Schulz’s Being Wrong is about how and why we change our minds, and is a book I think all of my students should read. (By the time I get them, as law students, they tend to be pretty set in their ways and could use her jolt.) I just finished John Kay’s Obliquity, a fascinating take on why so many successes have been achieved indirectly. I’m not so much reading these books for enjoyment – though I am enjoying them – as I am trying to get a sense of whether I might have something to say about their turf. They’re all great, so I’m not sure exactly what I might contribute. But I’m circling. Now that my latest book is out, I have the empty feeling many authors have when they are searching for the next topic – and I’m looking to fill it. Maybe I should just forget about the next book for a while, and take the leap to finish 11/22/63?
Visit Frank Partnoy's website and blog.

The Page 99 Test: The Match King.

The Page 99 Test: Wait: The Art and Science of Delay.

--Marshal Zeringue

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Meredith Goldstein

Meredith Goldstein is an advice columnist and entertainment reporter for The Boston Globe. Her column Love Letters is a daily dispatch of wisdom for the lovelorn that gets about 1 million page views every month on Boston.com. Love Letters appears in the Globe’s print edition every Saturday. Goldstein also writes about fake rock stars, former boy banders, female werewolves, self-help books, last picture shows, and how to sound like Matt Damon in Good Will Hunting.

Her new, debut novel is The Singles.

Recently I asked Goldstein what she was reading. Her reply:
For whatever reason, I couldn’t bring myself to read books for grown-ups while I was writing The Singles. I became addicted to young adult literature as a way of escape – and because the genre was so different from what I was writing that I never had to worry about losing my voice.

I started with the paranormal stuff and then branched out to every subgenre of young adult literature. I adored Daniel Handler’s Why We Broke Up, which made me cry. I went dystopian for a while with The Hunger Games and Lauren Oliver’s Delirium. I became addicted to Richelle Mead’s Vampire Academy series, which kept me obsessed through six books.

At the moment I’m reading City of Lost Souls, the latest book in Cassandra Clare’s Mortal Instruments series, which brings vampires, werewolves, and powerful “shadowhunter” teenagers to the familiar streets of New York City. Please don’t judge. I acknowledge that these paranormal books can be derivative (and that they’re are meant for pre-teens), but Clare’s stories explore mythology, family issues, and sexuality – and by book three I was desperate to know whether Clary and Jace would be able to overcome evil forces and make out with each other … or more.

As YA heroines go, Clary Fray is pretty dynamic role model. She fights like a champ for what she believes in, she’s loyal to her mom, and she’s brave about love. I’ve had great dreams while reading this book. (I have to admit that ever since I started reading YA before bed, I’ve slept better.)

I do plan to read one or two adult books before I become absorbed by my next novel. I’m treating myself to The Leftovers by Tom Perrotta, The Murderer’s Daughters by Randy Susan Meyers, and the new John Irving, which will be a big treat.

Then it’ll be right back to YA for me. Probably Laini Taylor’s sequel to Daughter of Smoke & Bone.
Visit Meredith Goldstein's website and blog.

The Page 69 Test: The Singles.

My Book, The Movie: The Singles.

--Marshal Zeringue

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Gregory Hill

Gregory Hill lives in Denver, where he works at the University of Denver library and plays in The Babysitters, a rock-and-roll power trio that includes his wife on drums.

His debut novel East of Denver was published earlier this month by Dutton.

Recently I asked Hill what he was reading.  His reply:
Lethal Injection by Jim Nesbit

One chapter in and I’m already reading this book while walking down the sidewalk. Murder, a death chamber, insanity, nicely composed sentences. For ridiculously brutal and occasionally subtle noir, it’s top of the pops. I picked up Lethal Injection under the false impression that it was written in the 50’s. After that first chapter, I was convinced that Jim Nisbet was the great lost author of the golden age of noir (and also possibly clairvoyant, judging by the predictions he made with respect to death penalty laws). I’ve since discovered that this book was first published in 1987. Now, I’m convinced that I need to spend more time looking for contemporary noir writers. And I should probably read chapter two at some point.

The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains by Nicholas Carr

I read this several months ago and I can’t stop forcing it on people. I’ve purchased four copies and given them all away. What I learned: Books are the world’s most efficient means of transferring information into a human brain. When we read books, we concentrate, we focus, we memorize, we retain. The internet is possibly the least efficient means of transferring information into a human brain. We skim, we chase links, we devour junk, and we turn our brains into globs of grey mud. The Shallows is a revelatory book and the people who most need to read it won’t because Carr takes time to make complex arguments, something that we are growing less and less capable of processing with our twitterfied heads.

Anything written by a friend

I’ve read several friend-novels in various states of completion and they always bring me great joy. It’s amazing that anyone could write a novel. So many freaking words! So many pages! And yet, there are millions of novels sitting in attics, hard-drives, and dumpsters which no one will ever see. The key, of course, is that this stuff is written by people I know. When I’m friends with the person who created the story, the story becomes much richer (or weirder or disturbing) than if it were something handed to me by a stranger on the street. Or maybe I just know a lot of great, under-recognized writers. I’ll give you one example: Dog Christ by Lucien Morgan.
Visit the East of Denver website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Katia Lief

Born in France to American parents, Katia Lief moved to the United States as a baby and was raised in Massachusetts and New York. She teaches fiction writing as a part-time faculty member at the New School in Manhattan and lives in Brooklyn.

Lief's Karin Schaeffer novels include You Are Next, Next Time You See Me, and the recently released Vanishing Girls.

A few weeks ago I asked her what she was reading.  Her reply:
I recently read three wonderful novels that play with history and time. The writing and subjects of each of the novels are quite distinct, but equally compelling. I recommend them all.

The School of Night by Louis Bayard deftly shifts between Elizabethan England and present day Washington D.C., connecting characters separated by centuries with a literary sleight-of-hand that brings you deeply into both worlds.

Sixteenth century alchemist and scholar Thomas Harriot meets secretly with four other prominent thinkers to talk about things like God, alchemy, politics and the black arts, discussions considered threatening to both church and state. Inspired by these meetings, Harriot carries out a series of middle-of-the-night experiments with the woman he loves, a brilliant repressed scientist who is also his servant.

Cut to modern Washington D.C., where Elizabethan scholars and collectors vie to recover a missing letter written by Harriot and believed to contain secrets including the key to alchemy and a clue to a lost treasure. The letter will also establish as fact the reputed intellectual partnership dubbed by Shakespeare the School of Night because of the furtiveness of these risque meetings, which took place late at night. The novel opens with the funeral of the scholar who possesses the letter, which is now missing. In short order, a wealthy collector hires a disgraced historian to find it among his late friend's possessions, and as the hunt intensifies, people start dying.

Surprises abound in this beautifully wrought tapestry of history, love and vengeance. I won't give away the ending, but the secrets in the letter are not what you'll expect.


Another historical time-shifting novel that I absolutely loved was Time and Again by Jack Finney. Published in 1970, Finney writes about a then-modern New York City that now looks quaint, with its big cars and rotary telephones nowhere near being considered vintage.

Illustrator Si Morley is convinced to participate in a secret U.S. government experiment in time travel. Through an elusive portal in an apartment in the grand old Dakota, Simon finds himself entering an 1880s New York where cars and telephones don't exist. His quest is to get some information about a consequential letter that resulted in a suicide. He rents a room in a boarding house and gets too involved with its inhabitants, and the deepening mystery that led to the letter, to return easily to his old life. He also falls in love. Needless to say, this complicates things with the girlfriend waiting for him in modern-day Manhattan.

Finney's writing has an openness and generosity you rarely encounter in tightly plotted fiction, yet the novel is dense with a perfect weave of story and character that makes for the kind of book you don't want to end.


Betty Smith's 1943 novel A Tree Grows in Brooklyn reads like a memoir of life in Williamsburg, Brooklyn in the first two decades of the twentieth century. The story follows the daily life of teenager Francie Nolan between the ages of eleven and seventeen. There isn't much of a plot, but the gentle compassion with which Smith chronicles of the lives of the impoverished Nolans, and brings a distant world back to life, was enough to keep me deeply engaged. Francie's mother's strength and determination carry the family through a string of difficulties as her father's alcoholism grows worse. Yet every hardship endured by the Nolans is described in the context of Francie's great love for her family. This is a sweet novel that made me feel as if I were floating back in time to a New York City that still resonates in the worn cobblestones of its oldest streets when you slow down enough to really look at them. You can hear the horses' hooves clopping along in Williamsburg a hundred years ago, and there's not a hipster in sight.
Visit Katia Lief's website.

The Page 69 Test: Vanishing Girls.

--Marshal Zeringue